App bans not enough. India must start imposing calibrated costs on China

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

In 1962, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set out to “teach India a lesson” by waging a surprise war. Now, by stealthily encroaching on border areas in Ladakh and then deepening and broadening the border crisis, it seems intent on making a permanent enemy of China’s largest neighbour.

From building a new axis against India’s so-called chicken-neck to advancing its “salami slicing” through militarized border villages, the CCP has steadily upped the ante. Its latest provocation is a “Land Borders Law”, primarily aimed at furthering its Himalayan expansionism.

Instead of mutually settled borders, the new law enables unilaterally imposed borders. Furthermore, the law’s assertion of absolute sovereignty over cross-border waters means that China has a declared right to divert as much of the shared waters of the Tibet-originating rivers as it wishes, regardless of downstream impacts.

Yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government still employs euphemisms to describe China’s 19-month-long aggression: “unilateral change of status quo” for land-grabs; “friction points” for seized areas; and “full restoration of peace and tranquillity” for rollback of the intrusions.

To Modi’s credit, though, India has refused to buckle. India has more than matched China’s military deployments and said bilateral ties cannot return to normal until China disengages and deescalates at the border.

China’s frenzied construction of new military infrastructure along the border, however, signals its intent to hold on to its gains of aggression and turn the once-lightly-patrolled frontier into a perennially hot border. The lengthy negotiations since mid-2020 have only worked to China’s advantage, enabling it to buy time and consolidate its land-grabs and build new military facilities and fibre optic networks along the frontier.

Had India done to China what China has done to it (seize territories through furtive aggression), the CCP dictatorship would have come down on it like a ton of bricks. Yet India has remained loath to impose biting trade and diplomatic sanctions, including as a means to address the largely one-sided trade and contain China’s influence operations.

India’s actions last year — from banning Chinese mobile apps to restricting Chinese companies’ access to Indian government contracts — may have helped assuage public anger at home over the aggression but did little to influence China’s behaviour. China’s exports to India are booming amid its aggression, allowing it to have its cake and eat it too. It is a “win-win” for China; it is literally winning twice.

By refraining from imposing substantive costs, India has allowed the military confrontation to remain a low-risk strategy for China. The multiple standoffs help China to keep India off-balance and stretched. Rather than India, it is China that is imposing costs, including forcing the diversion of greater Indian resources for frontier defence.

Meanwhile, India’s dual blunder in vacating the strategic Kailash Heights and accepting Chinese-designed “buffer zones” in three Ladakh areas has further emboldened China’s intransigence. Beijing has peremptorily dismissed India’s call for a return to the pre-April 2020 positions as “unreasonable and unrealistic”.

It is past time India sheds its risk aversion to build leverage over China. A calibrated imposition of progressively escalating costs has become imperative.

China’s trade with India may be modest as a percentage of its global trade, but its large trade surplus with India contributes significantly to its overall trade surplus. China’s bilateral trade surplus this year is set to nearly equal India’s total defence spending. The CCP has long waged economic war against India through product dumping to kill Indian manufacturing.

India must start employing tariff and non-tariff trade restrictions to curb non-essential imports from China. Indeed, China’s aggressive mercantilism has made trade diversification and import substitution more exigent. While China restricts market access to Indian firms, Chinese tech companies, for example, remain active in India’s lucrative cloud-computing space.

China’s challenge to its territorial integrity must prompt India to finally honour then-Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s 2014 promise to link its one-China policy to Beijing’s adoption of a one-India policy. Geopolitically, Taiwan should be to India what Pakistan is to China. If China swallows Taiwan, it will advance its hegemonic ambitions and become a more pressing military threat to India. Indian policy ought to subtly shift from a one-China stance to a “one China, one Taiwan, one Tibet” posture in practical but undeclared terms.

It is also time for New Delhi to downsize China’s large diplomatic presence in India, starting by shutting its Kolkata consulate, given the CCP’s designs on the Siliguri Corridor and the inflow of Chinese arms to insurgents. Modi’s predecessor played into China’s hands by letting it re-establish its Kolkata consulate without India reciprocally being allowed to reopen its Lhasa consulate, which Beijing shut in 1962.

The CCP is seeking to wear India out in order to impose a territorial and military fait accompli. A punitive Indian diplomatic and economic campaign can help internationally spotlight CCP’s strategic miscalculation in taking on India.

The writer is a geostrategist.